Most of our travelers are heading to Ecuador primarily to do a cruise in the Galapagos, but an increasing number are realizing that there is a whole lot to see in mainland Ecuador, an astonishingly beautiful and varied place that is worth more than just an extra couple of nights. For example, you can combine Galapagos with visits to see highland towns such as Otavalo (one of the best outdoor markets in South America) or to see the world’s highest active volcano, the 19,300 foot tall Cotopaxi. One of the highlights of traveling in the Ecuadorian Andes is the chance to stay at one of the first class historic haciendas (some are centuries old; one is built around an Incan palace), taking day trips out to explore the countryside and small towns. You can also add in visits to see the Amazon jungle, which starts just over the Andes Mountains from Quito and is easily accessible on a one hour flight. There are some outstanding jungle lodges in the Amazon region of Ecuador that we work with.
The Galapagos Islands sit 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, and visiting them is an unforgettable and uniquely beautiful experience. Trips to the Galapagos Islands generally consist of either 5 or 8 days in the islands, with a night in the gateway city of Quito added in on either end. Therefore, a 5 day trip to the islands is really a minimum of 7 days travel, and an 8 day trip to the islands is really a minimum of 10 days travel. For details on the vessels and the specific itineraries of each boat, please visit our Galapagos Small Ship & Yachts List.
The Galapagos can be visited in different ways, and we strongly recommend going on one of the smaller vessels, ideally from 12-20 passengers or on one of the 40-48 passenger vessels. The smaller vessels are a particularly intimate and up-close way to see the islands. There are also options for traveling on one of the larger vessels, which get up to 110 passengers (still relatively small by cruise ship standards). A final option, particularly for those who don’t like to sleep on a boat, is to stay at a hotel on Santa Cruz Island for a few days and make excursions to local islands. For both practical and environmental reasons, we do not recommend or encourage this last option. You don’t see as much while staying at just one hotel as you can see if you take a cruise, and hotel development in the islands is a significant long term threat to the islands (because it inevitably leads to pressure for more and more land based development, bars, restaurants, immigration, etc.). For these reasons we do not encourage land based Galapagos tours. If you have any questions about the best way to see the Islands, just let us know!
Quito is the capital of Ecuador, set in a valley at 9,000 feet below the Pichincha Volcano. It is the gateway city for the vast majority of trips to the Galapagos. The city’s historical center is a UNESCO world heritage site due to its large concentration of well preserved colonial buildings, several dating from the 1500s. Many of our travelers stay in a first class boutique-style hotel in the old part of town. You can also stay in the modern part of Quito, where there is a bustling commercial center with many shops, restaurants and bars. If you are interested in art, a great option is to visit the Museo Guayasamin, housing a large collection of works by Ecuador’s most famous 20th century painter, along with his excellent collection of pre-Columbian artifacts. Quito is a pleasant place to spend some time and we can arrange tours to visit the local sites and the Middle of the World Monument, where the Equatorial line passes just north of Quito.
The Ecuadorian Amazon is one of the most bio-diverse places on earth. An extraordinary range of species inhabit these rainforests, including howler and squirrel monkeys, toucans, parrots and many other tropical birds, and of course the rare and elusive jaguar. We work with the best jungle lodges, including Sacha Lodge and Kapawi Lodge, where providing a great place to stay is accomplished alongside a serious ecotourism mission. You’ll enjoy great food and the company of extremely knowledgeable guides as you explore the surrounding forests and come to appreciate them up close.
Otavalo is the home of one of the most vibrant and successful indigenous cultures in the Americas, and the town is set next to a large lagoon beneath the towering extinct volcano of Imbabura. The market here is one of the best on the continent and draws thousands upon thousands of people on weekends and many during the week as well. It is really an extraordinary experience. You can visit Otavalo either as a long day trip from Quito, or spend a night or two in the area, visiting some more of the local villages such as Cotacachi, and perhaps going hiking around the volcanic crater lake of Cuicocha Lagoon. A highlight of visiting this area of the country is a chance to stay in one of Ecuador’s haciendas, historic country estates converted to beautiful hotels. If you have an extra couple days to travel in Ecuador, this is a great way to spend them.
Another option for a 1 or 2 day trip from Quito is to visit the world’s highest active volcano, Cotopaxi. At over 19,000 feet, the mountain is truly magnificent, and the surrounding countryside is dramatic. If you have a couple days, a two day trip can include a stay at one of the historic haciendas that are close by to Cotopaxi National Park. These haciendas are former country estates with hundreds of years of history, that have been converted into very nice hotels. One of them, San Agustin de Callo, is built on top of and around the most significant Incan site in central Ecuador, and one of the most interesting Incan sites anywhere. The hacienda’s dining room is an entirely enclosed original Incan palace room, an experience you can have nowhere else.
Just outside of Quito, when you cross down over the crest of the Andes, you enter into an almost mystical environment with incredibly thick jungle and steep drop offs as the Andes fall away to the west towards the Pacific Coast. This is the Andean Cloud Forest, a unique high mountain rainforest environment that is home to an incredible variety of wildlife, and is one of the best places in the world for seeing rare tropical birds. You’ll stay at a very charming, rustic lodge that has been a pioneer in the movement of ecotourism through private land acquisition in Ecuador. This is generally done as a two or three day trip from Quito.
One of our most popular combination trips is to combine the Galapagos Islands with Machu Picchu in neighboring Peru. To see a suggested itinerary, please check out our Machu Picchu & Galapagos Itinerary. It can be customized in any way you would like, and generally ranges from 12 to 17 days. If you have the time, this is a trip that is hard to equal: stunning archeological ruins and ancient culture in Peru and Machu Picchu, and one of the world’s highlight nature destinations in the Galapagos.